The best books written by American presidents

Craig Fehrman Author Of Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote
By Craig Fehrman

The Books I Picked & Why

Notes on the State of Virginia

By Thomas Jefferson

Notes on the State of Virginia

Why this book?

Notes can feel unwelcoming to modern readers. There are jarring tangents and, more troublingly, dehumanizing descriptions of black people. But if you page around, you’ll learn a lot about Jefferson and his new nation. Notes also made a stunning impact, elevating America’s international standing and becoming a big controversy during Jefferson's presidential bids (the first campaign book!). It’s still a fascinating book to browse, and as a bonus, the Library of America edition also includes Jefferson’s brief attempt at writing an autobiography.


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The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

By John F. Marszalek, Ulysses S. Grant

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

Why this book?

Grant’s book is deservingly celebrated as the best presidential book, even if it's mostly a work of military history. Still, my favorite parts are the character descriptions. They show a surprising side of Grant: as a reader, he was America’s first full-blown fiction-loving president, and his obsession with novels clearly influenced his own writing. If you have the Library of America edition, you can quickly turn to the book’s sketch of Lincoln (page 469), which captures that president’s graciousness, and the sketch of Robert E. Lee (page 732), which captures Grant’s.


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The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge

By Calvin Coolidge

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge

Why this book?

This book is the forgotten classic of presidential writing—a blockbuster in its own time and a model for how modern political memoirs could be better. Coolidge was a stunningly good writer. (The New York Times called him “the most literary man who has occupied the White House since 1865.”) In his autobiography, he included many memorable stories, including one about his son, Calvin Jr., and his summer job picking tobacco. “If my father was president,” one of the laborers told him, “I would not work in a tobacco field.” “If my father were your father,” Calvin Jr. replied, “you would.” Yet the most memorable passage comes later, when the president describes Calvin Jr.’s shocking death. “In his suffering,” the most powerful man in the world wrote, “he was asking me to make him well. I could not.”


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Where's the Rest of Me? The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan

By Ronald Reagan

Where's the Rest of Me? The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan

Why this book?

Another forgotten book, Where’s the Rest of Me? covered Reagan’s early life and set him up for his post-Hollywood pivot. Reagan was always more literary than his opponents understood, and in this book he managed to define his sunny political image several years before his famous political aides showed up to help. I discovered this after finding a set of letters no other Reagan biographer had seen, but you could also see it just by reading his book’s opening, which is far too strange and memorable to get past a good flack:

The story begins with the close-up of a bottom in a small town called Tampico in Illinois, on February 6, 1911. My face was blue from screaming, my bottom was red from whacking, and my father claimed afterward that he was white.

The punch line: “Ever since my birth,” Reagan wrote, “I have been particularly fond of the colors that were exhibited—red, white, and blue.”


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An Hour Before Daylight: Memories Of A Rural Boyhood

By Jimmy Carter

An Hour Before Daylight: Memories Of A Rural Boyhood

Why this book?

Carter has written a huge number of books, including a historical novel and a volume of poetry, but this one is definitely his best. Like Coolidge's, it’s simple, detail-driven, and always personal, capturing Carter's Georgia childhood and connecting it to bigger issues like the Great Depression and the Jim Crow South. There's a handful of shorter, more intimate books by ex-presidents—not only Carter’s but also Harry Truman’s Mr. Citizen and Dwight Eisenhower’s At Ease—and these books always read better and reveal more than their authors’ official presidential memoirs. I wish more ex-presidents would follow Coolidge in writing that punchy and personal book first, about their White House years. If they tried this approach, they would find that it makes everyone a winner—not just the presidents but also their readers.


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